PITTSBURGH — So much for the slow start. The seemingly endless string of injuries to bold-faced names, to the ones that left the Pittsburgh Penguins drifting aimlessly for long stretches.
Then March came. April, too. And the Penguins did what they always seem to do when the number of games dwindles and the stakes rise. They found themselves in time to reach the playoffs.
The proof came over three periods against Detroit on Thursday night. Phil Kessel regained his scoring touch. Sidney Crosby threw his body — and the puck — into the net. Matt Murray swung the momentum with sprawling save on a breakaway and Pittsburgh extended the NHL's longest post-season streak to 13 years and counting with a 4-1 victory over the Red Wings.
"It's not easy," said Crosby, who finished with a goal and two assists. "You can see it comes down to Game 81. There are a lot of things that happened over the course of the year. It's difficult. It's a tight league and you have to earn it."
Something the Penguins have done better than any other team in the NHL since 2007, a stretch that includes three Stanley Cups and an appearance in a Cup final. While they'll hardly be among the favourites when the Eastern Conference quarterfinals begin next week, they have a shot. Considering where they were at various times over the last six months — from Murray's early struggles to injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Justin Schultz and Olli Maatta among other — they'll take it.
"I believe in this group," coach Mike Sullivan said. "When we play the game the right way, I think we can compete with any team in the league. We have difference makers in the lineup. ... I believe this group is capable of great things."
For the first time in a while, the pieces are in place. Malkin picked up an assist in his return from an eight-game absence due to an upper-body injury. Letang skated a team-high 25:52 in just his fourth game since Feb. 23, thanks to an upper-body injury of his own. Their presence gives the Penguins depth and offensive firepower few in the league can match.
"I think the impact they have is huge," Sullivan said. "Both guys are just, they're dominant players. It just changes the whole dynamic of our team."
Particularly when the Penguins are on the power play. Pittsburgh scored twice against the Red Wings with the man advantage, with both goals coming from the top group. Kessel's tap-in from the left post at 18:18 of the first period put the Penguins in front to stay. Crosby's jam from in close at 6:36 of the third period — a shot that came as he was being dumped into the net — ended a 10-game goal drought for the captain and drained the final minutes of any tension, a small respite at the end of a draining slog of a season.
Matt Puempel scored his first NHL goal in more than two years for the Red Wings. Jimmy Howard finished with 43 saves, but couldn't quite duplicate his spectacular performance in a victory over the Penguins on Tuesday as Detroit's six-game winning streak came to a halt.
"If you have Malkin and Letang back in your lineup, you're a much better team (and) it creates real hard matchups on the road especially when we're thin to begin with," Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "And I don't think our best players were as good as they have been. They've been excellent through this stretch."
One the Red Wings — who will miss the playoffs for the third straight year after making it every season from 1991-2016 — hope they can carry forward next fall.
The Penguins have more pressing matters, like trying to bolster their post-season position. A win over the New York Rangers on Saturday assures Pittsburgh of a meeting with the New York Islanders in the opening round. A loss and a victory by Carolina and the Penguins would drop to the top wild-card spot and face Washington for a fourth straight year.
There are far worse problems to have. For a few moments Thursday, they tried to enjoy a moment that has become a rite of spring for the franchise for more than a decade, even if the path this time proved bumpier than usual. Not that it matters now. The playoffs offer a chance to reset, a button the Penguins are eager to push.
"I think we have a good team here," Kessel said. "We'll see who we play coming up. We'll give it our all."
NOTES: Penguins C Matt Cullen played in his 1,515th game, passing Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman for 19th on the NHL's all-time list. ... Detroit F Tyler Bertuzzi was held without a point to end his franchise-record streak of games with at least three points at four. ... The Red Wings went 1 for 2 on the power play. The Penguins were 2 for 4.
Red Wings: Wrap up 2018-19 at home Saturday against Buffalo.
Penguins: Finish the regular season at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday.
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